--By Akhilesh Tripathi
Death doesn’t make an announcement before it comes; it is often sudden and unexpected. But a death as unexpected and sudden as that of Sushil Koirala is rare, especially when one considers who he was. He was a former Prime Minister, leader of the Opposition and president of Nepal’s largest political party, Nepali Congress (NC), and aspired to be elected to the NC presidency once again through the party’s upcoming General Convention.
Those as politically powerful as Koirala rarely leave this world as quietly as he did. They get the best treatment even at home from the best doctors when they fall ill. If that is not sufficient, they are taken to the best hospitals. Such people are even taken abroad, if necessary. When such people fall ill, that becomes news.
In the case of Koirala, however, hardly anybody knew that he was sick, so sick that he could die. Nepalis got the sudden news of his demise on the morning of February 9.
According to his personal physician, Koirala died of respiratory problems. It is learnt that Koirala was suffering from pneumonia and had a fever for a few days before his death. According to family sources, Koirala, a chronic patient of bronchitis, had difficulty in breathing from Feb 6.
Why was he not taken to a hospital then? Was it Koirala’s own carelessness, putting his life at stake thinking that the news of his illness could affect the party’s upcoming general convention? This is perhaps a question not worth considering now; he has already left us. But what is definitely worth considering is the legacy of his long political life.
A Quintessential Party Man
Sushil Koirala was a committed cadre of the Nepali Congress right from the start. Some political commentators even say that he had no life besides the Nepali Congress. He was actively involved in the party’s activities ever since he joined it some 62 years ago and this continued until his death. Sushil was a cousin of the legendary BP Koirala, one of the founders of Nepali Congress. BP’s father Krishna Prasad Koirala and Sushil’s father Bodh Prasad Koirala had married two sisters – Divya and Kumudini, respectively.
Along with Krishna Prasad, Bodh Prasad, too, was in exile in India as they were against the Rana regime. When the Rana Rule ended, Bodh Prasad was among the many party cadres who were rewarded for their struggle against the Ranas. He was made a District Forest Officer and sent to Nepalgunj. Sushil grew up in Nepalgunj but got politically socialised under the shadow of his far more illustrious cousin, BP who became Nepal’s first elected Prime Minister.
When King Mahendra took over absolute power in 1960, dismissing BP as the Prime Minister, Nepali Congress had to wage a 30-year long struggle against the absolute monarchy. This was a period when Sushil spent many years in exile in India, mostly in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But his role was primarily that of assisting BP. This was the period when his network in the party grew, though he was a junior activist at that time. Sushil also played an important part in the hijacking of a Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation plane by some Nepali Congress activists in 1973, as a mark of protest against the royal autocracy. Though it was said that the hijacking had the backing of India’s covert agencies as well, Sushil was arrested and had to spend a few years in an Indian jail.
The 30-year long political struggle against the party-less Panchayat became successful in 1990, eight years after BP’s death in 1982. In the post 1990 period, BP’s younger brother Girija Prasad Koirala emerged as the most towering personality in Nepali politics. He became Prime Minister five times and was Nepali Congress’s most powerful leader till his death in 2009. Needless to say, Girija, too, was Sushil’s cousin. Sushil’s role in party affairs grew during Girija’s time. He made Sushil the Acting President of Nepali Congress before his death.
Sushil was an average politician in terms of political vision, strategy and skills and organisational capacity. His commitment and dedication to the Nepali Congress and democracy, however, was always unquestionable. He even dedicated his personal life to politics and died a bachelor at 78. He refused all offers for a position in government and never showed any interest in power politics until he became the country’s 37th Prime Minister in 2014.
However, Sushil’s crowning glory was not in 2014 when he became the country’s chief executive, but in 2010 when he defeated former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba to become the President of Nepali Congress. An acting presidency of the party might have come as a ‘gift’ to Sushil, but he rose from an appointed acting president to an elected president of Nepali Congress because of his simplicity, probity and high moral standards.
Nepali Congress suffered a huge defeat in the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008 when Girija Prasad was the party’s president. But the party regained its lost glory and emerged as the biggest party in the second CA polls in 2013 under Sushil’s leadership. This may have become possible due to the increasing public disillusionment with the performance of the Maoists and the Madhesi parties in government, rather than Nepali Congress’s intrinsic strengths or Sushil’s personality. But the fact that he led the party to victory will surely be counted as one of his most remarkable achievements.
As a Prime Minister
While Sushil’s contribution as a party man cannot be disputed, his record as a PM is not impressive. When the massive earthquakes struck Nepal in April 2015, the onus was on Sushil as the PM to provide direction to the administrative machinery and hope and optimism to the citizens. It is true that no least developed country could have coped with a natural tragedy of this magnitude, but, by all accounts, the Sushil Koirala government did a dismal job. His government was unable to pass a law and set up the Reconstruction Authority. Precious time for reconstruction was lost and earthquake victims had to live through a difficult monsoon and remained inadequately prepared for the winter.
Another important task that Sushil Koirala is credited for is the promulgation of Nepal’s new Constitution. Many give him the credit for ‘concluding’ the constitution writing process which had stretched on for seven years, against the original commitment of two years. Sushil was under immense domestic as well as international pressure to postpone the constitution promulgation by some more time but he ensured that the long overdue task came to an end. The new constitution has ensured the fundamental principles of Nepal’s political transformation – federalism, democracy and republicanism.
But there is another side to the “constitution, a great success” story. In his hurried quest to be the man who presided over the promulgation of the “New Constitution”, Sushil perhaps left a deeply contested document which, many political analysts think, has divided Nepali society. The constitution promulgation process alienated the Madhesis and, not to forget, in the run-up to the promulgation, the Sushil Koirala government shot over three dozen Madhesi protesters dead, causing deep alienation.
The constitution promulgation process may have been pushed by other leaders, and Koirala often expressed a sense of helplessness. But he had already missed his self-declared one-year deadline to promulgate the constitution and step down as PM. So, there can be no excuse for state brutality and for not pausing the constitution promulgation process, in order to save lives and make the new constitution more inclusive.
Sushil surprised almost everyone when he announced his candidacy for the post of Prime Minister for another term, against his earlier public commitment to become PM for only one term, that too just a yearlong. It is said that India did not want CPN (UML)’s KP Sharma Oli to become the Prime Minister and therefore prodded Sushil to put up a candidate from the Nepali Congress, even reassuring him that the candidate had a good chance to win. But the equation in the Legislature-Parliament clearly favoured Oli. All Nepali Congress leaders aspiring to become the PM knew this; none of them wanted to fight a lost battle. Then, it is said, Koirala filed his nomination.
And that is the note on which Sushil Koirala’s political career ended, indicating that he too was not free from the complexities of Nepali politics.